“He Spent Most of Preschool Sitting in a Tree.”
ADHD doesn’t have to be a road block on your child’s pathway to success. Learn why paying attention, trusting your gut and letting your child experiment can help her grow into a well-adjusted adult, while keeping your sanity intact.
“The teacher says Harry keeps climbing under his desk during class,” my wife, Margaret, told me over dinner.
“It’s first grade,” I said. “He’s creative. Heck, he spent most of preschool sitting in a tree.”
That used to be an amusing Harry story, but it wasn’t any more. Margaret told me she wanted him to be evaluated by a psychologist. Harry was diagnosed with ADHD, and soon he was getting help and accommodations, which later included medication for attention deficit disorder.
Now Harry is 23. He has moved out and is on his own. He’s a sweet guy and is doing fine. It’s a story with a happy ending. But, for a parent of a child with ADHD, or children, happy endings don’t come easy. Ever.
Harry’s struggle with ADHD became pronounced in middle school. By this time, we’d moved, and we also had a five-year-old daughter, Coco, who was eventually diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. From seventh grade on, Harry had no focus except for video games and rap music, and he became harder to reach. He wouldn’t do anything he was asked to do.
It looked like plain stubbornness to me, and Harry and I fought, screaming like sea lions on Nature, which did nothing but scare the hell out of Margaret and Coco. The truth was, I was having alcohol problems and job troubles. After a breakdown, I was diagnosed as having ADHD and hypomania, with short-term memory and temper problems. Next to me, Harry suddenly looked like Gandhi.
Then I got sober and started dealing with my ADHD. Margaret and I resolved to put our family first. We got counseling, did research on ADHD, and patiently rebuilt trust among the four of us. Margaret and I made a lot of missteps along the way, but if I could boil down everything we learned to nine steps, these are what they’d be.
1. LISTEN TO YOUR CHILD.
I listened to Harry, but only when he was being obedient. I thought that if I was a powerful enough influence (read: loud enough), I could control him. Control, though, was the last thing he needed. He needed to be heard.
Margaret, especially during Harry’s tough teen years, listened to him better than I did. That led to freedom and trust. Outside of the home, ADHD kids are always under pressure to conform. Inside the home, an ADHD child needs to know he is understood and accepted by his family.
2. PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOUR CHILD DOES.
Put at the top of your to-do list, “Observe my children.”
Appreciate them for the imaginative beings that they are. This isn’t the time to monitor or correct, it’s the time to be like Jane Goodall in the jungle and interact only when invited or when necessary for safety’s sake.
When you regularly watch your ADHD child, instead of trying to fix him, you understand how he sees and feels the world. When he senses that understanding from you, he trusts you.
3. FOLLOW YOUR GUT – THEN ADJUST.
Often a problem or behavior rears its head before either you or your child knows what to do about it.
Say your loving ADHD kid comes home from school and kicks the family dog. She has never done that before. You, the dog, and the child are dumbstruck. You know that ADHD children have trouble with impulse control, and that they have frustrations and pressures beyond what most children deal with. But what do you do with that information?
When I was in this situation, I didn’t know, so I yelled, “Don’t kick the dog!” My daughter said nothing and went upstairs to her room.
Later I sat down on the floor with Danny, our dog, and invited my daughter over to talk with us. We were on the same level, physically and emotionally. We didn’t say anything; we just petted Danny. Then my daughter said she was mad about some school things, but she had no clue why she kicked Danny. I brought up frustration and impulse control. She apologized, and said she wouldn’t do it again. Then she and Danny went outside to play.
When you trust yourself as a parent, it’s easier to fine-tune your reactions as you go.
4. KEEP THE VOLUME DOWN.
I picked up this nugget from Margaret, and as an ADHD parent, it was a hard lesson to learn.
Reacting calmly, when you want to scream, has power. Your children learn self-control, a little at a time, by your
ADHD kids don’t react well to parents yelling at them. It confirms the negative thoughts they have about themselves.
5. BE PATIENT ABOUT RESPONSIBILITIES AND CHORES.
Tasks and chores are essential for children with ADHD to feel like a part of the family. But piling on too many chores, or not explaining the reasons for doing them, overloads your child’s brain.
Being overwhelmed stops an individual with ADHD in his tracks. So, when assigning responsibilities, assign them one at a time, making sure your child knows what’s expected of him-and why.
6. LET YOUR CHILD EXPERIMENT.
All kids like to pretend to be grownups in a safe environment; it’s how they learn to be social. Sometimes, especially with children with ADHD, who have trouble remembering or understanding limits, that pretending leads to experiments that are impolite or insulting.
Suppose your child talks too loudly at the dinner table, or when he is asked to do something, blurts out”, “Are you deaf? I said no! You should slap a smile on your face and stay directly engaged with him, so you can get across the appropriate behavior and set limits. If you can show him how to get positive results, he’ll use that knowledge to better manage situations outside of the home.
7. MAKE SURE YOUR HOME IS QUIET AND ORDERLY.
…and that everyone respects each other.
A graveyard is quiet and orderly and respectful, and nobody wants to live there. As parents of children with ADHD, we’re sometimes so concerned with managing their symptoms that we forget to just live with our kids. Goof off with them. Tell silly jokes and get into belching contests.
8. TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF.
Rest. Put it on your to-do list. Being a parent of children with ADHD can be frustrating or exhilarating, but it is always exhausting. So set aside time to not think about being a mom or dad.
9. SHOW YOUR LOVE.
This is the cornerstone. Every day, in every way, let your children know how much you love, respect, and value them.
Tell them with words and hugs, and by tucking them in at night. Even when they’re teenagers, they like to know that there is nothing that they can say or do that will make you stop loving them. The value of affection is often eclipsed by concerns that come with raising a difficult child.